Maersk’s security team fires back on Houthi in Red Sea, thwarts boarding, prompting another operational pause

Just days after announcing its gradual return to the Red Sea, global cargo shipping giant Maersk finds itself at the center of escalating tensions as its vessel, the Maersk Hangzhou, becomes the target of a missile and small boat swarm by Yemen’s Houthi Group.

Illustration; Courtesy of Maersk

The assault occurred approximately 55 nautical miles southwest of Al Hodeidah, Yemen.

“On Dec. 31 at 6:30am (Sanaa time) the container ship MAERSK HANGZHOU issued a second distress call in less than 24 hours reporting being under attack by four Iranian-backed Houthi small boats. The small boats, originating from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, fired crew served and small arms weapons at the MAERSK HANGZHOU, getting to within 20 meters of the vessel, and attempted to board the vessel,” the U.S. Central Command said.

“A contract embarked security team on the MAERSK HANZGHOU returned fire. U.S. helicopters from the USS EISENHOWER (CVN 69) and GRAVELY (DDG 107) responded to the distress call and in the process of issuing verbal calls to the small boats, the small boats fired upon the U.S. helicopters with crew served weapons and small arms. The U.S. Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats, and killing the crews. The fourth boat fled the area. There was no damage to U.S. personnel or equipment.

Maersk confirmed the incident to Offshore Energy in a statement, saying that it took place after Maersk Hangzhou had passed through the Bab al-Mandab Strait en route from Singapore to Port Suez, Egypt.

On December 30 at approximately 06:30 pm CET, when the vessel was 55nm southwest of Al Hudaydah, Yemen, the vessel was hit by an unknown object, however there was no indication of fire onboard and the vessel was able to continue its transit north. Maersk can also confirm that after the initial attack on the vessel, four boats approached the vessel and engaged fire in an expected attempt to board the vessel. A helicopter was deployed from a nearby navy vessel, and in collaboration with the vessel’s security team, the boarding attempt was successfully repelled,” Maersk said.

The Maersk Hangzhou’s crew was reported to be safe, and the vessel, showing no signs of fire and fully maneuverable, continued its northward journey to Port Suez.

“Maersk is currently working to ascertain the full details of the incident and is in close dialogues with OPG and authorities to assess the security level in the area,” the company said.

The 14,000 TEU Maersk Hangzhou is a Singapore-flagged vessel deployed on Maersk’s AE12-service between Europe and Asia.

This unexpected attack has compelled Maersk to once again reassess its operations in the region, as the company declares a temporary suspension of all sailings through the Red Sea for the next 48 hours.

“In light of the incident – and to allow time to investigate the details of the incident and assess the security situation further – it has been decided to delay all transits through the area for the next 48 hours,” Maersk added.

“Ensuring the safety of our crew is our utmost priority, and all necessary security measures are implemented to protect them and the crew will receive all the support needed to handle this difficult and serious situation.”

The decision follows an earlier commitment to resume operations in response to the initiation of Operation Prosperity Guardian by the United States, aimed at safeguarding ships in the contentious Red Sea waters near Yemen.

“As of Sunday 24 December 2023, we received confirmation that the multi-national security initiative Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) had been set up and deployed to allow maritime commerce to pass through the Red Sea / Gulf of Aden and once again return to using the Suez Canal as a gateway between Asia and Europe. With this reassurance, Maersk announced that it was preparing to allow for its vessels to resume transit through the Red Sea, both eastbound and westbound,” Maersk said in December 29 update.

Our teams have now started to update voyage plans on a vessel-by-vessel basis, which will see the first vessels pass through the Red Sea again. This is most welcome news for the entire industry and the functionality of global trade. Please note that for the foreseeable future, voyage plans are expected to include transit through the Red Sea as well as shipments diverted via the Cape of Good Hope.”

The incident underscores the challenges faced by major shipping companies in navigating the region, with Houthi attacks disrupting global trade and influencing route decisions that impact approximately 12% of global trade passing through the Suez Canal.

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Yemeni Houthi Forces have been targeting ‘all Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine‘ as a means of expressing solidarity with the current situation in the Gaza Strip, demanding humanitarian aid and medicine be allowed into the war-stricken area.

Operation Prosperity Guardian, launched by the United States on December 19, aimed to secure Red Sea waters near Yemen with support from a coalition of more than 20 countries. However, the operational commitment has been limited, with only the United Kingdom contributing warships, leaving the U.S. effectively to “act alone” against the Houthi threat, reports Al Jazeera.

Media reports have indicated that countries like Spain have distanced themselves from the involvement amid concerns related to their involvement’s impact on the local community as global demands for a ceasefire continue to mount.

Israel’s pounding of Gaza is continuing despite calls for a ceasefire, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hints the war is likely to continue for many more months.

UN data shows that more than 20,000 Palestinians were reportedly killed and 1.9 million people, 85 percent of the population, forced to flee their homes. 

Gaza’s health system is on its knees, clean water is at a trickle and the World Food Programme (WFP) has warned of the threat of widespread famine, the UN said.